Ek Ladki Ko Dekha toh kya hua? Coming-out in the age of mainstreaming same-sex desires
Having watched Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga at the London premier in Genesis Cinema on 5 February 2019 it took me a while to get around to writing about it.
My hesitation and the delay came from trying to reconcile the film’s sensitivity to the lives of women who desire the same-sex and its promotion as a mainstream film.
On the one hand Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is about a wealthy family’s journey towards acceptance of their daughter's sexuality, on the other it is a powerful negotiation of a woman’s sexual desire within the space of a highly patriarchal and small-town family in India. The story of acceptance, sadly, nearly overwhelms Sweety’s (played by Sonam Kapoor) negotiation of her desires.
Yet my difficulty also arises from how much the story of acceptance is also an urgent narrative that has dominated newer films from India in the queer film festival circuit [see My Son is Gay (2017) by Lokesh Rajavel, or Sridhar Rangayan’s Evening Shadows (2018)] . Therefore, balancing these perspectives, my take on the film does not dwell on what the film could have done, nor do I argue for the needless expectation placed on mainstream cinema to offer a nuanced representation of non-heterosexual lives. Instead what this review focuses on is what the film does by focusing primarily on marriage as the means through which same-sex sexuality is legitimised. Here, I refuse to use the term ‘lesbian,’ unlike many other articles on the film, since neither the characters in the film use the identity, nor Shelly Chopra Dhar in her Q&A after the film.
The uniqueness of Shelly Chopra Dhar’s dynasty starrer Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga lies in its ability to balance nuance and sensitivity in minority representation with marketable and commercial film-making. Reading reviews and hearing people from both activist circles and mainstream cinema-goers suggests that Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is successful precisely because it pleases no one. It is balanced enough to be palatable to both mainstream audiences and people who identify as LGBT.
At its strongest the film visualises intense and harrowing scenes of children being bullied at school for being different. The visual art of the diary-as-closet is poignant in depicting the painful journey of negotiating sexual and gender difference in secrecy alongside the complexities of childhood. Some of these very difficult moments in the film along with their nuanced and measured treatment are, to my mind, the most powerful and painful parts of the film. These moments offer glimpses into the lived experience that has gone into its making. Perhaps here Gazal Dhaliwal, the screenwriter, offers up the very raw and vulnerable moments that mark the difficult journey to self-acceptance, growing up in pre-decriminalisation India.
However, such sensitive moments are scattered in the narrative of familial acceptance that Dhar had emphasised at the London Premier in Genesis Cinema. Starring Sonam Kapoor as Sweety, Anil Kapoor as her father Balbir, Rajkummar Rao as the understanding gay enabler Sahil Mirza, and Juhi Chawla as Chatro, the film lends star power to the very needed message of societal and familial acceptance.
This message overwhelms the lesser narrated story of Sweety’s same-sex desire yet offers the uninitiated viewer a much-needed lesson on acceptance and inclusion. Therefore, Balbir’s struggles with coming to terms with his daughter’s sexuality are writ large on Anil Kapoor’s powerful rendition of the character. The film devotes much more time to Balbir’s tribulations almost to a fault and at the expense of the emotions Sweety’s character would be experiencing on bravely coming out to her father, brother, and grandmother in a room full of strangers and towns people for the very first time.
This sacrifice, to me, seems like the biggest flaw in the film’s presentation of a minority perspective. Although, to Dhar’s credit she acknowledged that having to balance the demands of for-profit cinema with mainstreaming the depiction of same-sex desire among women meant sacrificing the time spent on Sweety’s character in the interest of the family aspects of the film. This balancing act is also something that Karan Johar’s much earlier films such as Dostana, Student of the Year, and Kal Ho Na Ho have negotiated with much lesser success than Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and have often led to harsh criticism.
The consequence of this mainstreaming, however, is that the film gives into the all too conventional obsession with marriage in contemporary Bollywood. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga fulfils its for-profit bottom line and philanthropic liberal values by framing same-sex desire within the ambit of the never-ending Indian wedding sensation.
Sweety’s love interest Kuhu is introduced at a wedding; Sweety’s tribulations all revolve around her parent’s search for a suitable boy. Similarly, her brother, the arch-villain, seizes on any convenient moment to get her married off. Even her public coming out to her conservative family and in Mogra, a small Punjabi town, through the plot device of a play within the play, is set in the build up to another wedding extravaganza. It falls prey to the trap of leaving same-sex desire as palatable only within the context of marriage.
Moreover, it neglects many of the harsher realities of desiring the same-sex within a hetero-patriarchal society. Any detour outside of mainstream cinema into films that focus on the lives of women who desire other women, centre around near impossible logistics of living alone in male dominated cityscapes (Leena Manimekalai’s 2017 film Is it too much to ask?, Karishma Dev Dube’s 2017 film Devi), or around the desperation that drives rural same-sex desiring women to commit joint suicides (Debalina Majumdar’s 2013 film …Ebang Bewarish and 2017 film If You Dare Desire), or the violent and horrific sexual abuse of corrective rape perpetuated by and within the family (Deepthi Tadanki’s 2016 film Satyavati). The contrast points to the question of who, what castes and what classes, can afford same-sex marriage and what that means for the many women who desire other women in India. In that regard Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1996 had a much better handle on the realities affecting women who desire other women in India than Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa in 2019.
This is not to suggest that Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa does not engage with some of these issues more powerfully dealt with in non-mainstream cinema. Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga offers glimpses into these realities that affect women in India.
The harrowing appearance of the brother with his gang of men armed with hockey sticks, or the looming actors with swords domineering over Kuhu and Sweety in the play within the play, are all palpable markers of the realities of hegemonic and violent patriarchies in India. Yet these are almost immediately diffused in the film either through the patronising and benevolent father (and by extension family) or the understanding but doubtful grandmother, or even the sympathetic solidarity in the voice of Juhi Chawla’s character.
Yet marketability means leaving these issues under developed if not untouched. This is clearly visible when the film lets Sweety voice her truth only to be talked over or laughed into silence time and again. It leaves unanswered the question of whether marketability dictates that the film overlays the painfully felt trauma of navigating sexual difference within heterosexual India with comedy, marriage, or paternalism. To some this is a disservice greater than the caricatures of the 80s and 90s (see Luther and Ung Loh, 2017). It trivialises personal struggles by making them just about human enough and then abandoning them to be swept under the carpet like most other things in families. Perhaps in this alone it offers equality.
However, in offering these moments for public viewership the question of marketable cinema needs to be understood as an underlying factor rather than holding such cinema up to the unrealistic expectation of being an activist voice, an unflinchingly emphatic ally, or even a film like Aligarh that comes from Industry professionals but also refuses the label of mainstream.
Within such marketability, marriage in one stroke can offer both the convenient vehicle of legitimacy and acceptance, while offering up visualisations of same-sex love for hetero-consumption. In these senses, much more so than any other precursor Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is a mainstream film. It cannot shoulder the responsibility of being the story ‘we’ve’ been waiting for all our lives, nor should its claims to represent ‘truth’ be treated at face value.
Instead the film’s closing message from Sweety to the playwrights of the world is the important question the film leaves behind. She charges Sahil Mirza, and relies on his benevolent patriarchy, to go and tell her story in the small towns across India. A noble cause undercut by the many problems of who profits from telling the story, who is allowed to speak, and what kinds of women are vanishing in the narrative.
Dr. J. Daniel Luther completed their fully funded doctoral research at SOAS, University of London in December 2018 and is one of the co-founders of the international platform called ‘Queer’ Asia.
The Great Diwali Discount!
Unlock 75% more savings this festive season. Get Moneycontrol Pro for a year for Rs 289 only.
Coupon code: DIWALI. Offer valid till 10th November, 2019 .
Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 13:37:29 IST